You may know who Marilyn Hagerty is, even if you don’t recognize her name. In 2012, this then-eighty-six–year-old columnist (and former features editor) at North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald  went “viral” (a term she had to ask her son to define for her) for her completely non-ironic review of the Olive Garden when it arrived in her town. (She famously described this chain restaurant as “the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks,” perhaps a subtle hint that she was underwhelmed by the food itself.) When her column first went viral, Hagerty was ridiculed as a cultureless simpleton. But as time went by, she began to grow on people. Rather than making fun of her, more and more of us began to be attracted to her snappy wit, her comfort in her own skin, and her complete lack of cynicism.

Anthony Bourdain says of her compilation of reviews, “This book kills snark dead.”Hagerty (who has been writing for the Grand Forks Herald since 1957) recently made it back into the headlines with her review of the four McDonald’s restaurants in the Grand Forks area. The review, laden with Hagerty gems, did not disappoint. When she ate a sausage Egg McMuffin, she stated baldly, “You know you have eaten, and I like the combination.” When it came to fancy espresso beverages, Hagerty was laudatory: “The lattes cost less than those I enjoy at Starbucks. But they are worthy.” And when she ordered a Big Mac, she vividly described it as “my secret sin,” while graciously acknowledging “they help to fill up active, working people.”

In short, Hagerty always looks for something to praise. In the foreword to her book, Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews, Anthony Bourdain (himself something of a Hagerty super fan) writes, “She is never mean—even when circumstances would clearly excuse a sharp elbow, a cruel remark. In fact, watching Marilyn struggle to find something nice to say about a place she clearly loathes is part of the fun. She is, unfailingly, a good neighbor and good citizen first—and entertainer second.”

Early on, I admit I rolled my eyes a bit at Hagerty’s lack of sophistication. When I lived in her corner of North Dakota, I struggled with the cultural isolation. It was difficult to find sophisticated—or even marginally diverse—dining experiences. Our small town of approximately three hundred people only had gas station pizza (replete with the world’s oldest pepperoni and the reek of chemically-enhanced food-like substances) for most of the 3½ years we lived there. A hard-working couple did briefly buy the town café and tried hard to provide good, reliable home-cooking and excellent service, but it was kind of a doomed gig from the start. A town of three hundred just couldn’t sustain a café.

Beyond our own mostly non-existent town café, if someone wanted more than gas station pizza, the next-closest café was a fifteen-to-thirty-minute drive away, and it mostly just served home cooking. There was a Dairy Queen fifteen minutes away that was open in the summer, as well as a decent steakhouse open year-round. Thirty minutes out, you could find a pitiful-looking Chinese restaurant barely hanging on for dear life. And a Hardees, a couple of Mexican restaurants (one of them excellent), and more cafés.

If you wanted something more diverse, you would have to drive over an hour away to Grand Forks (the same distance most women drove to have their babies—even in frigid winter weather). There you could find a decent assortment of options: chain restaurants, a few trendier locales, a very good Italian eatery, some local institutions, a Panera-style bakery/sandwich shop. It wasn’t a big city restaurant scene by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a nice enough diversity.

Given this reality, when it came to food, I did what most local women did. Instead of eating out, I learned to cook better. My local grocery store tried hard to stock the strange items I was always asking for: organic whole milk for my baby, hoisin sauce, cilantro, soy milk. Instead of ordering take-out, I learned to make my take-out.

Let it be said here: North Dakota women can cook. They know how to make the basic dishes at the heart of Americana with real skill: pies, homemade bread (don’t get me started on their brown bread, best served warm and dripping with butter!), roast turkey, mashed potatoes, homemade pickles, vegetables from the garden, and the like. Their dishes evoke the warm, homey aura of food meant to sustain men hard at work in the wheat and canola fields.

More than their ability in the kitchen, however, North Dakotans favor a humble, quiet thankfulness for what they have. They don’t base their worth on cutting-edge restaurants or the latest clothing styles or power-hungry prestige. They base their worth on the beauty of relationships, on community cohesion, on hard work, on how well they manage to help and support their neighbors (especially the sick and the elderly). In a North Dakota small town, community is far more important than the individual. For a declining, aging community, this virtue is essential. One builds up one’s neighbors’ businesses and doesn’t rock the boat. The community is intertwined and can only survive together.

Now, there are certainly ways valuing the community over the individual and eschewing conflict can be problematic. But there are also ways in which these values work as a helpful and beautiful corrective to the competitive, self-seeking, critical mindset of today’s American life. Whereas our mainstream American culture works constantly to tear others down (for no other purpose than one’s own exaltation), North Dakota small-towners remind us that building up is much more admirable.

Marilyn Hagerty is a product of her North Dakota culture. Her columns reviewing such everyday establishments as the Olive Garden or McDonald’s or Quiznos are reflective of an area where people are grateful to have such restaurants. They are reflective of an area where people are grateful to have any restaurant and where they work hard to support local businesses and help each other thrive. It is a small thing to downplay an imperfect meal—and instead focus on what can be praised—for the sake of the relationships and community involved. This is not bearing false witness; it is, rather, acknowledging that almost everything in life has positive and negative aspects. It is choosing to focus on the good rather than the bad. Hagerty believes there is always something good that can be said.

As Christians, oftentimes we are so quick to jump on things with which we disagree, to fault-find, to say how we would do better. And there’s a time and a place for constructive criticism and even prophetic truth-telling. But Marilyn Hagerty and her fellow North Dakotans encourage us to consider the equal importance of looking for the good. As Paul wrote in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

What if before we started to critique, we stopped to look for the good, the thing to praise, the thing for which to be thankful? What if we did this in our experience of the arts, of leadership, of politics, of our local church, of our relationship with our non-Christian neighbors? How would it impact the way we delivered a critique when it was necessary to do so? How would it enhance our love of our neighbors and our ability to engage constructively with them? How would it fight hard against the discontented yearnings pulling at us in every TV and Facebook ad?

I’m preaching to myself, you see. Like most Americans, all too often my first impulse in my experience of culture, family, church, and life is to critique and to be discontented with what I have. That’s why I—and we—need Marilyn Hagerty. Bourdain says of her compilation of reviews, “This book kills snark dead.” Snark could probably stand a few death blows. Yes, we need Marilyn Hagerty. We need the reminder to lay aside our constant critique and our jaded cynicism and begin our engagement by simply gratefully receiving with has been given.


3 Comments

  1. I travel a lot. I absolutely must say that I don’t see American culture as self-centered and mean. I see American media as self-centered and mean. That is where the image of hatefulness is sown and nurtured. When I meet the people across this country, they are just like the people in North Dakota. They are mostly kind, always helpful, delightfully friendly and just plain fun. They are nothing like the portrayal on television or in the few newspapers still in business. They are real.
    Snark is birthed and reared in the media. Where the real people live, the world is a much nicer place.

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